In many academic circles, the pressure to go to graduate school immediately after college seems greater now than ever before. Here are 10 things to keep in mind if you’re thinking about applying to a graduate program after college.
During my senior year of college, I spent a lot of my free time researching and applying to graduate programs. When I was accepted into a three-year-long program in creative writing – my dream since high school – I immediately agreed to the offer, one that allowed me to work for the school in exchange for tuition and a stipend for living expenses.
After some time in the program, I began to realize that the classes and the career trajectory it offered were different from what I had expected. I determined that pursuing that particular credential wasn’t in alignment with my needs or aspirations, and I made the decision to withdraw from the program. In looking back on my own grad school application process, I realized that I put a lot of pressure on myself to be ready for graduate school right away, when what I really needed was time away from academia to clarify my goals and calmly prepare for my next steps.
If you’re approaching graduation and feel pressure to commit to a graduate program right away, here are 10 things to consider when making your decision.
1. Don’t Let Comparison Interfere
It’s normal to look to the examples of others around us when we make decisions or try new things. Our friends’ choices can inspire and motivate us, but if we aren’t careful, we might find ourselves playing the comparison game. After graduation, many of my friends and classmates planned to stay in school and earn Master’s degrees. At the time, I assumed that this was best for me too, and I didn’t allow myself to consider any alternatives. I know now that while it’s good that I surround myself with people who inspire me to be the best version of myself, it’s also okay that my path doesn’t look exactly like theirs.
2. Graduate School Is More Than a Financial Investment
College is expensive, and it’s okay to wait before moving on to grad school in order to establish more financial stability. Graduate school also requires an investment of your time and mental energy. If you’re feeling burned out from years of hard work in college, you may benefit from taking time to reset before jumping back into the academic world. Graduate school can be more challenging than undergrad because it often involves working one or more jobs as a graduate assistant (in addition to increased academic demand). If you know you want to attend grad school but need to rebuild your financial and mental resources, you might find it helpful to take time away from the academic world before beginning another program.
3. Graduate Degrees Aren’t Always Required
When one of my college professors found out that I was considering graduate school, she questioned whether the degree I was seeking was necessary for me to achieve my career goals. Since I wasn’t interested in a career that absolutely required an advanced degree, she advised me to bypass grad school and begin working instead. Because others had told me that my Bachelor’s degrees wouldn’t be enough on their own, I had a hard time accepting my professor’s advice. Though I didn’t see it then, I eventually realized that she was right – the degrees I earned in history and English more than prepared me for an entry-level job. There was no need for me to put off finding a job I knew I would enjoy in favor of earning a credential that wasn’t required in the first place.
There was no need for me to put off finding a job I knew I would enjoy in favor of earning a credential that wasn’t required in the first place.
4. Relationship and Family Timelines Matter
During a session with my college advisor, he asked if I had any relationship and family aspirations and told me that if I did, it was important for me to consider these when mapping out a future career plan. Even though I’m in a committed relationship with intentions of building a future together, at the time, I felt like it would hurt my career goals to admit that having a successful relationship and eventually a family are just as important to me as working a job I enjoy. In reality, you don’t always have to sacrifice one for the other. If you’re in a long-term relationship, there is no shame in taking this into account when determining where, when, and for how long you want to be in school beyond college.
5. It’s Okay to Move Home Temporarily
There can be a stigma surrounding the choice to temporarily move back home after college. Regardless, many people move home after completing an undergraduate degree, whether to save money on rent, spend more time with family, or both. Even though my family lives in a small town, after I left grad school I decided to find a job there and move back home for a while. No matter where I eventually live and work, I know that now is a valuable time to save money, plan for the future, and enjoy time with my family while we’re all under one roof.
6. Graduate School Will Always Be There
If you have plans to go to graduate school, you may worry that if you don’t attend immediately after college, you’ll never make it back. But keep in mind that “not now” doesn’t mean “never.” There are no rules saying that you can’t go back to seek an advanced degree after taking some time off.
7. Consider Working a Related Job First
One of the best ways to determine if seeking an advanced degree is right for you is to spend some time working in the field you plan on studying. For instance, if you’re interested in going to law school, then you might try working as a legal assistant or paralegal to gain first-hand knowledge of the legal field and the daily life of an attorney. You’ll never regret saving money while you work, and you never know how the experience you gain from even a temporary job will help you in the future, whether in a new job, further education, or life in general.
Waiting is different from wasting time.
8. Explore Alternatives to Traditional Programs
After dealing with the ups and downs of Zoom classes over the past few years, the thought of attending graduate school through an online program may be the last thing on your mind. But online programs offer the benefits of flexibility, affordability, and practicality that traditional programs don’t. Many universities also offer part-time options for in-person or online graduate school that allow you to work while obtaining a graduate degree. No matter where you live and work, non-traditional graduate school can be a great way to balance your educational, career, and life goals.
9. If You Feel Like You’re Rushing into the Decision, Wait
When I talked to my advisor about the pressure I put on myself to earn a graduate degree and accomplish career goals as soon as possible, he reminded me that I didn’t have to make everything happen right away and that it was okay to slow down. When it comes to an investment like graduate school, you can never go wrong by taking time to gather experience and information and think through all your options. Waiting is different from wasting time. You never know what you’ll learn about yourself and your goals if you take the time to understand yourself and what you really want out of life.
10. Your Worth Doesn’t Depend on Academic Achievement
If you’re someone who has always prioritized academic achievement, it can be tempting to find your main source of self-worth in hard work and success in school. It’s important to remember that while status as a graduate student is a great achievement and can add value to your career, it isn’t the only way to excel, and it doesn’t make you more valuable as a person. Though I’ve struggled with these feelings, it’s been helpful for me to look for opportunities outside of academia that have to do with my job, hobbies, passions, and interests in order to provide myself with a different sense of fulfillment.
Ultimately, only you can know if attending graduate school right after college is the best decision for you. Maybe you’re ready for the challenge, or maybe you need time to rest and clarify your goals. Whatever you decide, remember that you don’t have to give in to the pressure to have everything figured out as soon as you graduate and that it’s okay to take your time when making decisions about your future.
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